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Survey Article


The evolution of the Family-Purpose-Car Doctrine in Georgia over the years has been a most interesting subject to observe. A new aspect was added this year by the Supreme Court of Georgia in Phillips v. Dixon.

The doctrine provides that the head of a family who keeps and maintains an automobile for the use of the members of the family is responsible for injuries to third parties that result from the negligent use of the automobile by a member of the family if the automobile is being used in furtherance of a family purpose.3 It has long been held that the doctrine applies when the family member permits others to drive the vehicle if the family member is present and in control of the vehicle and it is being used for a family purpose.4 It is also established that the mere disobedience of a family member, who uses a vehicle on a particular occasion against the instructions of a parent, does not bar application of the doctrine.

But what if a parent has given his child express instructions not to allow third parties to operate the vehicle? In precise language, Phillips held that disobedience of such instructions alone is no bar to application of the doctrine:

[A] parent who keeps and maintains an automobile for the use, comfort, pleasure and convenience of the family, is responsible for injuries resulting from the negligence of a third person whom the family member permits to drive, where the family member remains in the automobile and retains control, authority and direction over it, and where the automobile is being used in furtherance of the purposes of a family car. We hold this liability created by the Family Car Doctrine to be applicable notwithstanding the fact that the parent has expressly instructed the family member not to permit third persons to drive the car.

Down through the years, there has been a running controversy of a sort between those who say that the Family Car Doctrine is but an extension of the law of principal-and-agent on the one hand and, on the other hand, those who say that the Family Car Doctrine has become a body of law unto itself. The passing of time seems to favor the latter as the better argument.

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